Summary: The heroes of the Alamo and La Bahia are recalled in the famous battle cries, “REMEMBER THE ALAMO! REMEMBER LA BAHIA!” But does anyone remember the only recognized Mexican heroine in the Texas Revolution, the “Angel of Goliad,” Francisca “Panchita” Alavez?
Word Count: 3378
October 17, 1835, started one of the most legendary wars in history. On that date, defiant Texans in the tiny hamlet of Gonzales east of San Antonio fired a squatty little cannon at advancing Mexican forces intent on retrieving the weapon. It didn’t matter that the cannon had been loaned to the village by the Mexican army in 1831 for use against Indians attacks. What mattered was that Santa Anna had proclaimed himself Dictator of all Mexico in 1832, and he advocated removing all foreigners from Mexican soil.
With increasing unrest stealing through the countryside, Gonzales residents weren’t about to surrender the cannon. “Come and take it,” they taunted, as they set off a charge of old chains and scrap iron that would lead to the Alamo on March 6, 1836, and to Goliad two weeks later. Ironically, it would also lead to Francisca “Panchita” Alavez, a Mexican army captain’s wife who would become the “Angel of Goliad,” the only recognized Mexican heroine in the Texas Revolution.
The last three months of 1835 and the early months of 1836 were times of great triumph and deep tragedy for Texas. The tiny Texan army had captured the great stone presidio of La Bahia at Goliad in October, rousing more than 160 Mexican soldiers in the process. Right on that triumph came the capture of San Antonio in December. February found Colonel William Travis laboring to make his Alamo defensible, while Colonel James Fannin and his volunteers, most of them farmers from Georgia, worked to improve La Bahia. Everyone knew that they didn’t have much time: Santa Anna was on the march with more than 8,000 men at his command.
General Antonio Miguel de Lopez de Santa Anna de Perez de Lebron wasn’t worried about the 400 men commanded by Colonel Fannin at La Bahia. He was more concerned about regaining San Antonio, as that city was the gateway to America. Taking most of his army northward, he sent General Jose Urrea, with an infantry and cavalry brigade numbering around 1,200 men, to march south along the Texas coast to quash the insurgents of La Bahia. One of the officers in General Urrea’s command was a handsome young captain from Toluca named Telesforo Alavez, who later rose through the ranks to become a colonel. Captain Alavez, as was the custom of Mexican soldiers of the time, took his wife Francisca with him to war.
Francisca Alavez, or Panchita as she was affectionately called, first came to the attention of Texans four days after the fall of the Alamo. As General Urrea marched along the seacoast conquering all pockets of resistance, he stopped his progress in San Patricio, west of Corpus Christi, on March 10, to refresh his troops and bury the dead. He still sent out patrols, but when they returned with prisoners, he’d have them sent to Matamoros as prisoners of war—until a scout rode up with instructions from Santa Anna. ALL PRISONERS SHOULD BE EXECUTED, Santa Anna had ordered.
Father John Thomas Molloy, who had presided over the burial of both Mexican and Texan dead at San Patricio, told Urrea that it would be an un-Christian act to murder the men. He threatened to hold no more Masses if the barbaric orders were carried out, and while he argued, Panchita joined in, prevailing upon her husband to intercede.
Reuben Brown, who was captured in an ambush at Agua Dulce Creek on March 2 and who was taken out to be shot, wrote that his life was spared only because of the intervention “of a priest and a Mexican lady named Alvarez.” Brown’s account, which was published in the 1859 TEXAS ALMANAC, is probably the reason Panchita Alavez’s name has always been misspelled and is today still spelled Alvarez.
Eight days after the fall of the Alamo, Urrea swarmed against the half-ruined walls of Mission Nuestra Senora del Refugio, twenty-five miles south of Goliad. In a fight that lasted until the Texans ran out of ammunition and were forced to escape into the woods under cover of darkness, Urrea’s army managed to kill nearly all the hundred-odd Texans, men who had been sent by Colonel Fannin to Refugio as a front line of defense for La Bahia. Several survived, however, and made it to Goliad to warn Fannin that the Mexican army was on the move from the south.
The great stone presidio of Nuestra Senora de Loreto together with the mission of Neustra Senora del Espiritu Santo de Zuniga were called “LA BAHIA,” meaning ‘the bay’ or ‘harbor’ because they were originally built in 1722 on Espiritu Santo Bay, now known as Matagorda Bay. Although moved twenty-five miles inland in 1749 to their present site on the south bank of the San Antonio River at Goliad, they retained their name and remained the strongest ever built by the Spanish in Texas.
The fortress had walls which were ten feet high and three feet thick, enclosing more than three acres of ground atop a rocky hill. Eight cannon, shipped up from Veracruz, covered every approach. From its defensible hilltop position, it was a key location, for whoever held it controlled the supply lines to San Antonio.
On March 11, General Sam Houston sent Colonel Fannin orders to fall back to Victoria, a small town twenty-five miles east of Goliad. However, Fannin made the fatal mistake of awaiting the return of many men on scouting parties, men who had already been captured by Mexican troops and unable to escape. By March 18, Urrea’s cavalry was on the horizon. Colonel Fannin planned on retreat that night, but the actual movement didn’t commence until the next day. Disregarding General Houston’s orders to sink the surplus artillery in the river, Fannin insisted on taking the nine brass cannons and 500 spare muskets with him. Unfortunately, he packed no rations of any kind for his men.
On a beautiful, unprotected prairie about ten miles east of Goliad, now named, appropriately, “Fannin” after him, the Colonel halted his men. If he had continued only a few miles further, he would have found water and the protection of trees. As it was, it didn’t take long for General Urrea’s seasoned troops to surround the inexperienced little band of Texan volunteers.
By all accounts, it was a long and bloody afternoon. At darkness, nine Texans lay dead and fifty-one were wounded. Many of the uninjured could have escaped, but they chose to remain with their fallen comrades, not trusting the mercy of the Mexican army after what had happened at the Alamo. The intense heat, perverse weather for March, dehydrated them, and all night long the wounded cried for water that was not there. When Urrea shelled the shallow, makeshift trenches the next morning with a 12-pound cannon, Fannin and his men contemplated surrender.
Fannin sent for parley under a white flag of truce. If they were to be executed like the defenders of the Alamo, then they would fight to the death, but if they would have honorable treatment as prisoners of war, they would lay down their arms. Urrea told Fannin that he felt sure he could persuade Santa Anna to grant the Texan command the honorable terms of war, which meant taking them to New Orleans with a warning never to return to Texas. He presented Fannin with a surrender document, which Fannin then signed.
Fannin surrendered at discretion, to use the term of the day, with the understanding that his men would not be executed. The Texans then laid down their arms and willingly marched back to Goliad, where they were confined as prisoners in La Bahia. They believed they would soon be going home to work the fields and be with their families.
For one week, the Texans languished as prisoners while Urrea continued his march eastward. During that time, they were joined by more and more prisoners captured by Urrea. They were also joined by some eighty Tennessee volunteers under Major William Parsons Miller, who were captured all at one time at Copano Bay.
The Tennessee volunteers were celebrating the end of a voyage on the ship William and Frances from New Orleans, in which they had been cooped up for twenty-one days, by jumping into the bay and swimming ashore. Reaching land, the Mexicans snagged them. Since they were not carrying their weapons, they were not technically violating the Mexican decree that any foreigners found bearing arms would be treated as pirates and executed. Colonel Jose Nicolas de la Portilla used this reasoning to avoid killing them, but he had them bound tightly with rawhide thongs for good measure.
The hides soon dried and tightened, cutting off circulation and causing great pain. Left for hours in that fashion in the heat without food or water, the men suffered immeasurably, as they marched to La Bahia. Panchita, who took every opportunity to aid all the prisoners, was absolutely horrified when she saw them. Smitten with compassion for the stricken men, she ordered their bonds cut and food and water to be given to them immediately. She fussed over the captives as if they were part of her family.
Goliad was to be a nightmare for all the prisoners. In one room of the presidio, more than four hundred men were crammed into what is today known as La Bahia’s “Black Hole of Calcutta.” The room was so small that there was no space in which to lie down. They men were packed in so tightly that bodies were held in place by other bodies. A visitor to the fortress today can still see the room as it was then.
It was the brave Panchita who persuaded Colonel Portilla to let the captives out into the courtyard for room and fresh air, and she further persuaded the Mexican commander to provide food and medical treatment. When the Tennessee prisoners arrived, Panchita convinced Portilla to send them on to Matamoros, since they had arrived on Texas soil without weapons and had not fired a shot against the Mexican army. Panchita’s compassion is credited with sparing the Tennessee regiment from the slaughter that followed.
Urrea, who was still marching east, had written Santa Anna about the terms of the honorable surrender he had offered Fannin, but in answer to Urrea’s letter, Santa Anna ordered immediate death to the “perfidious foreigners.” Urrea ignored the orders. Intending to honor his agreement with Fannin, he sent Colonel Portilla instructions to treat the captives with consideration. Unknown to Urrea, however, Santa Anna had sent Portilla another order to “execute the prisoners in your hands at dawn.”
On Palm Sunday, March 27, 1836, the prisoners at La Bahia were roused from their sleep and ordered outside to form up in three columns. All believed they were going home.
Panchita, when she learned what was about to take place, managed to smuggle several captives through the lines to the river before being stopped. She then pleaded so effectively with Colonel Francisco Garay that he spared twenty of the doctors, interpreters, nurses, and mechanics. Garay, who would later become a great man in Mexico, was so revolted at the barbarous order that he had already resolved, at great personal risk to himself, to save all that he could.
Panchita didn’t stop with her pleas to Colonel Garay. Sneaking Texans by ones and twos, she managed to hide about two dozen on a parapet of the fortress. Spying a young boy already in the ranks, she pulled fifteen-year-old Benjamin Franklin Hughes into her care. When a Mexican soldier objected, she said she needed the youth for only a few moments, and spirited him out of sight. Hughes, who had been Fannin’s drummer boy, tried to return to the ranks, but Panchita wouldn’t let him. He lived to become a prominent citizen of Dallas. He called Panchita the “Angel of Goliad.”
The three columns of men, under heavy guard, marched out of La Bahia in three different directions to a grassy spot about a half mile from the fortress where they were shot down at close range. About 370 were killed—the exact figure cannot be known—less than thirty managed to escape. Fannin and about forty other injured men, who were unable to be marched out, were executed inside the fort. All the bodies were then stripped and set on fire, but the brush gathered for the pyres was green and the bodies were just roasted, not consumed.
When Urrea learned of the slaughter, he was greatly outraged and mortified, writing in his diary that `I never thought that the horrible spectacle of that massacre could take place in cold blood….’
Panchita cried when she learned the son of one of the spared doctors had been shot on the prairie. She asked the doctor, John Shackelford, why she hadn’t been told that he had a son there, that she could have saved him. Shackelford later escaped and returned to his home in Alabama. His account is probably the most complete and most reliable of the Goliad massacre.
When Panchita found the wounded William Hunter, a volunteer from Missouri, left for dead with bullet and bayonet holes in his body, she dragged him to the San Antonio riverbank, where she concealed him among the grasses and reeds while she dressed his wounds. Mexican soldiers later came upon seven other men who escaped the massacre. Killing three, they took the other four prisoners to Victoria, where Captain Alavez had been reassigned. Lined up before a firing squad, Panchita dashed out and placed her body in front of the doomed men. Her bravery prompted another Mexican woman to join her. Refusing to move, the two women forced the execution to be canceled.
Texas would never be the same after Goliad. The slaughter outraged Americans everywhere, and it was Santa Anna’s worst mistake. Although he had executed American invaders at Tampico in 1835, and Americans didn’t react, his brutal execution of men who had surrendered as prisoners of war only encouraged American support. If the Alamo was bad, La Bahia was barbaric. All across the United States, volunteers and money headed for Texas.
After Santa Anna’s defeat on April 21 at San Jacinto near present-day Houston, Captain Alavez commanded the Mexican forces at Victoria, while the retreating Mexican army began its withdrawal from Texas. The daring Panchita, however, even on her return to Matamoros, showed great kindness to the imprisoned Texans there. Most accounts end her story by claiming that she returned to the Mexican capital with her husband, only to learn he had another wife. When he abandoned her there, she returned to Matamoros and seemed to disappear from history. But that’s not the true story or the way it really ended.
Elena Zamora O’Shea wrote an account in 1936, which is now in the Texas State Archives, about an incident that happened in 1902. Elena taught school on the Santa Gertrudis Division of the famous King Ranch of South Texas. Captain Richard King had founded his ranch in 1854 when he had journeyed into Mexico and persuaded an entire village of more than 100 men, women, and children to come back to Texas with him, and Elena would often read news from the Spanish newspapers or translate children’s stories to them and their descendants, as well as to the other ranch hands.
One day, she read the story of the massacre of Goliad, and one of the listeners, Matias Alvarez, was alert, taking in every word. “When I had finished,” she wrote, “he asked me, ‘Is that all that they say about Goliad?’ I told him it was. ‘They do not say that anyone helped those who were hurt or that any of them were saved?’….”
After questioning him, Matias told all the story. His father, Telesforo Alavez, had married a bride chosen for him by his parents, as was the custom of the time. There had been no love on Telesforo’s part, and after a few years, he separated from her, but was unable to get approval from the Catholic Church for an annulment and remarriage. Francisca was his sweetheart, and she went with him to war as his wife. After the war, the couple settled in Matamoros and had two children, Guadalupe and Matias. Captain King knew Colonel Alavez and of the mercy Panchita had shown at Goliad and to the prisoners of war being held in Matamoros, and he promised to be there if they ever needed his help.
When Colonel Alavez died, his children crossed the Rio Grande to work on the Cortina Ranch, which is now part of the legendary Yturria Ranch near Raymondville. Along the way, their name officially became Alvarez. Although Guadalupe died young, Matias survived in the Brownsville area by working truck farms and selling vegetables at Fort Brown. He soon married and began his own family. Captain King, in a journey to one of the South Texas divisions of his ranch in 1884, visited with Matias. Upon learning that Colonel Alavez had died several years earlier, the Captain immediately offered Matias a job.
Matias accepted, and moved his family to the Santa Gertrudis Headquarters of the King Ranch near Kingsville, taking his old mother, Panchita, with him. According to family recollections, “she died on the King Ranch and is buried there in an unmarked grave. Old Captain King and Mrs. King knew and respected her identity.” Panchita was in her nineties when she died.
That still isn’t the end of the story. Panchita left quite a legacy in South Texas. Matias fathered eight children, five boys and three girls. While the boys worked at different occupations, some on separate divisions of the Ranch, the girls sewed or became companions for the King family. One daughter, Maria, became the constant companion of Miss Clara Driscoll, the woman known as the “Savior of the Alamo” because she advanced the last $25,000 needed to meet the price of $75,000 to purchase the Convent in 1904. One of the boys, Gerardo, grew up to become foreman of the Santa Gertrudis Division of the Ranch. He died in February 1914, and upon his death, Lauro Cavazos became foreman.
Gerardo’s sister, Rita Alvarez, married a man named Quintanilla, and their daughter, Tomasa Alvarez Quintanilla, married Lauro Cavazos, the foreman of the Ranch. From that union came Dr. Lauro Cavazos, former President of Texas Tech University and, as Secretary of Education under President George Bush, the first Hispanic to serve in the United States Cabinet. Another Cavazos connection to the Alavez family is a United States Army four-star general, Richard O. Cavazos. There are still a lot of Alvarez in Kingsville, Corpus Christi, and all over South Texas, and all are very much proud of their ancestral grandmother, Panchita.
Although still standing and in use today, La Bahia is not a shrine like the Alamo, but it is burned into Texas history as the straw that broke Santa Anna’s back. Less than a month after the Goliad massacre, the Mexican Dictator and President was imprisoned. Although he was returned to Mexico as President, he was never again as arrogant as he had been in Texas. Several years later, he honored the wishes of his wife Ines on her deathbed and freed all American prisoners of war being held in Mexico.
The massacred Texans remained where they lay on the plains of Goliad to satisfy the appetites of scavengers until June 3, 1836, when General Thomas Rusk had the bodies gathered and interred in a mass grave near the mission chapel of La Bahia. If it weren’t for the compassionate “Angel of Goliad,” Francisca “Panchita” Alavez, the loss would have been total.
Today, in the graying, haunted halls of La Bahia, there stands a bust of Francisca “Panchita” Alavez. Her determination, courage, and compassion shines through the coldness of the statue. The Angel of Goliad is the only person on the Mexican side of the Texas struggle for independence to be so honored by Texas.
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